Pentagon insists typhoon won't open door to US military presence in Philippines

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The massive disaster relief mission being spearheaded by U.S. forces in the central Philippines will not open the door to an increased military presence in the country, according to the Pentagon.

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Nearly 1,000 Marines, backed by a small fleet of American warships and aircraft, are in the Visayas region of the country, conducting humanitarian operations in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

On Friday, the Pentagon ordered 900 Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit into the Philippines to join the 200-man American force already on the ground there.

The typhoon, which slammed into the chain of islands in the central Philippines Nov. 8, is reportedly the strongest to ever make landfall in the Pacific or elsewhere in the world.

As of Sunday, roughly 4,000 Filipinos had perished in the massive storm, which reportedly took out whole villages and towns located in the coastal areas near the eye of the typhoon.

The large-scale disaster relief mission being spearheaded by the Pentagon comes as Washington and Manila are negotiating a new security cooperation pact, which could lead to an increased U.S. military presence in the Asian nation.

Backers of that ramped-up military footprint in the Philippines argue the U.S. response to Haiyan could have been faster, if American units were already based in the Philippines.

The only permanent American military presence in the country is a special operations counterterrorism task force based in the southern Philippines.

That said, Pentagon officials are adamant the Pentagon's military response to the typhoon will not lay the groundwork for that potential increase in U.S. forces.

"I'm not sure I would draw a direct linkage between our [increased] presence in the region and our ability to respond to these kinds of crises," former Pentagon press secretary George Little said.

The Pentagon already has "thousands of forward-deployed American service members" scattered across the Asia-Pacific region, Little told reporters shortly after the first American units arrived in the Philippines.

"So I would not draw a direct causal connection between" the U.S.-led disaster relief mission and bolstering American troop numbers in the Philippines, he added.

U.S. military planners have been eyeing deployment options in the Philippines and elsewhere in the region as part of the White House's plan to shift focus from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific.

In June, Philippine defense leaders agreed to allow U.S. forces to return to Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval base for the first time since the DOD officially shuttered the facilities in 1991 and 1992, respectively.

The Obama administration also opted to triple the amount of military funding to the Philippines last year, as U.S. forces look to expand their foothold in the country.

Manila will receive $30 million in foreign military funding from the United States this year, according to news reports — nearly three times the $11.9 million in military funds Washington pledged to the Philippines in 2011.

But Filipino activists, particularly in the southern part of the country, have begun to lash out at the idea of thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines returning to the country.

Public outcry eventually prompted Pentagon leaders to reduce the Marine Corps presence in Okinawa and move those Marines to the U.S. base on Guam.

In response, Little reiterated the Pentagon has no plans to establish a permanent military presence in the Philippines.

The idea, according to the Defense Department spokesman, is to use Clark and Subic as waypoints for "rotational presences" of American forces in the Asia-Pacific, "so that we can work together with allies and partners ... address problems like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."

"We realize there is a [U.S. forces] deficit in places [in the region] and we're absolutely game to fill the gap," Little added. "But it's something that we think is important to continue to work with our partners."